Baltimore votes in mayoral primary a year after Freddie Gray unrest

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[April 26, 2016]  (Reuters) - Baltimore voters cast ballots in the Democratic nominating contest for mayor on Tuesday, with a Maryland state senator leading a crowded field a year after rioting sparked by a black man's death in police custody.

Tuesday's primary vote in the overwhelmingly Democratic city of 620,000 people comes as Baltimore recovers from the unrest that stoked a simmering U.S. debate on police treatment of minorities and prompted the current mayor to decline to seek re-election.

State Senator Catherine Pugh leads the 13 Democrats seeking the mayor's office with 31 percent support, according to an opinion poll early this month for the Baltimore Sun newspaper and the University of Baltimore.

Her closest rival is former Mayor Sheila Dixon at 25 percent. Dixon is making a comeback bid after being forced from office in 2010 for allegedly misappropriating gift cards for low-income families.

No other Democrat had more than 9 percent support, the poll showed. DeRay Mckesson, a nationally known activist with the Black Lives Matter movement, polled at less than 1 percent.

The winner in the Democratic primary almost certainly will win the November general election since Democrats outnumber Republicans 10 to one. Baltimore's population is mostly black; Pugh, Dixon and the current mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, are African-American.

Five Republicans are running, and nine Green, Libertarian and independent candidates are on the ballot. Polls open at 7 a.m. EDT (1100 GMT) and close at 8 p.m. EDT (0000 GMT).

The city about 40 miles (60km) northeast of Washington exploded into national and world headlines a year ago after the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man, from a broken neck suffered in police custody.

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His death sparked protests and a day of rioting. Six police officers - three white and three black - have been charged in Gray's death.

Rawlings-Blake, who has served since 2010, came under fire for her handling of the crisis. She said in September that she would not seek re-election.

Chronic unemployment persists a year after the turmoil, with joblessness at 7.1 percent at the end of February, above the national rate.

Nearly all the candidates are pledging aggressive job creation. State Senator Pugh wants to use mobile units to help residents find jobs; former Mayor Dixon has promised to triple training programs.

Crime is another concern. Homicides surged after Gray's death. Baltimore has recorded 75 this year, up 14 percent from the same period in 2015.

(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)

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